Open Source Audio Books – LibriVox

This week is Open Source Week here at the institute. We’re celebrating all things open source. We’re taking a broad view of this term, which generally includes peer production, open collaboration, and free licensing.


Has the breathless pace of news got you needing a break? Are you tired of paying for audio books? Looking for something new to listen to on your commute or run? Check out LibriVox.org for free audio books.

The goal of LibriVox (Latin for “voice of the book”) is “to make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet.” Libri Vox is noncommercial, nonprofit, and ad free. All recordings are free and in the public domain. Did I mention it’s free?

How It Works

You, the listener, go to their catalog page. Type in an author or title in the search bar and voilà! A list of titles will populate your screen. You can simply click on the “Download” button on the right-hand side and you’ll get a zip file with the whole book in mp3. Make sure that below the title you see the word “complete” to be sure the whole book is available. You’ll also see, below the title, the words “solo” (means a single reader; I prefer this, as it gives a more even listening experience), “collaborative” (usually means a different reader for each chapter), and “dramatic” (actors read specific parts). Finally, you’ll notice the language listed, as Libri Vox has books in many languages. You can also click the title to head to that book’s page for more details and formats. Note that many books have more than one version, each read by a different person (more on that below).

But wait, there is a catch. The only available books are those in the public domain. This means that published works whose copyright has expired, been forfeited, or never applied are free for any public use. They have stopped being the property of the producer and passed into the public sphere. In most countries, copyright expires 50–70 years after the death of the author or creator. In the US, it is only safe to assume published works from before 1923 are in the public domain. Why 1923? Mickey Mouse, of course. Disney has been lobbying the extension of copyright as its beloved mouse approached the public domain (see this explanation from the Art Law Journal).

Do not despair, as plenty of great works are in the public domain, including almost everything from Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, H. G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, and many others.

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The LibriVox app.

Take it with You

You can download the mp3 files and load them to your listening device of choice or even burn them to a CD, but the easiest way I’ve found is to use the LibriVox app. You can find it in the Google Play and iTunes stores. Search for LibriVox and find this symbol.

Finding Quality Books

LibriVox audio books are read by volunteers (more on that below). I will say that some are better quality than others. Some of the best that I’ve found are (and no offense to the other readers, these are simply my favorites; please shop around to find yours and tell me about them in the comments) listed here with an audio sample:

John Greenman‘s reading of Mark Twains works are great. This American has done almost all of them and has a wonderful voice. He sounds exactly how I imagine Mark Twain would.

David Clarke, a Brit, has read all of the available Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

Tadhg Hynes, a Dubliner, has the best recordings of Dickens.

In my opinion, I find the “dramatic” works to be spottier (and sometimes the “collaborative” ones as well). For example, I find that the Shakespeare plays read by different readers for each character to be of uneven quality (both in recording and dramatic prowess). For example:

Although I applaud their effort, I prefer to shop around and find the best reader before downloading a whole book, and if I find a reader I like, I’ll go to his or her page to see other offered recordings. And remember, that’s just my opinion. Explore the options for yourself.

Volunteer Read

These are free because of the work done by volunteers. The readers have clearly committed to spending hours of time preparing, recording, and editing their offerings. Each book is proof-listened by another volunteer. As a podcaster, I know it takes 3–4 times the run time to record and edit audio material. If you are interested in giving back to Libri Vox, consider volunteering.


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